Analysts of all stripes have been peering through the political dust of 2017 to figure out what the hell happened. The academic monographs and bombshell memoirs stand side by side on the already groaning bookshelf devoted to explaining the Trump phenomenon. In all likelihood it will take decades to get a proper perspective on the year in American history that has irrevocably transformed the political landscape.
That transformation is deep-seated. It has not only created a schism separating competing ideas; it has pried apart the very conceptual frameworks that shapes those ideas, a gestalt change that signals we have reached a turning point in history. What we are witnessing is a watershed shift in philosophical first principles. The first irony to be observed is that this sweeping philosophical transformation was occasioned by perhaps the least philosophically minded president in United States history.
The twists and turns of history are often unexpected. What follows is my attempt to peer into the political dust and note other ironies—ironies of a distinctly philosophical cast—that have emerged from the rubble of Trump-apocalypse.
Conservatives and Postmodernism
The first irony centers on the nature of belief, specifically justifying beliefs in the public square. According to the Pew Research Center, in 1994 about half the country (49%) had an equal number of conservative and liberal beliefs. In October of 2017 Pew found that number had dwindled to about a third of the population. Many have offered reasons to explain the polarization of the country. One unexpected explanation concerns the conservative capitulation to an intellectual movement they once vehemently resisted.
For centuries, from John Milton in the seventeenth century to Jurgen Habermas in the twentieth, the idea was that political differences were settled in the public sphere. The public sphere was a literal and metaphorical space for debate; it could be a senate floor, a coffee house, a newspaper, or a town square. The public sphere was intended to be a neutral playing field, favoring no side of any debate; to that end, disputants were expected to support their arguments by appealing to mutually-agreed-upon, independent criteria, primarily reason and logic. In order for a belief to carry the day, it had to be shown to be reasonable and logically consistent; people would then be persuaded and adopt that belief as their own. This was the modus operandi of the Enlightenment, the legacy of the Scientific Revolution, modern philosophy, and the Founding Fathers.
I am certainly not the first to maintain that the public sphere—as it was conceived for centuries—no longer exists. Mutually-agreed-upon, independent criteria for justifying truth claims have vanished. According to a New York Post analysis, Trump issued 103 false or misleading truth claims during the first ten months of his presidency; Obama, in contrast, made eighteen false or misleading statements during his entire eight years in office. This stark dichotomy prompts the authors of the piece to proclaim, “[Trump] seems virtually indifferent to reality, often saying whatever helps him make the case he’s trying to make.”
Clearly this proclamation was intended as a criticism. But what if, instead, it is a mere truism? Within the new political landscape, we all choose our own “realities” and are thereby and obviously “indifferent” to those that differ from ours. Many philosophers and psychologists have long posited that we choose our beliefs before we rationally analyze them. We believe what we want to or even have to; then we go about justifying those beliefs not only to others but to ourselves as well. The realist might object, “That’s irrational!” The antirealist would respond, “Prove it.” Which would be a Sisyphean task. For if there are no criteria independent of both the realist and antirealist positions, then there is no way to adjudicate between the two of them. Instead, we have a set of criteria for the realist and a set of criteria for the antirealist. There is no way to settle disputes in this sort of stand-off.
The late Richard Rorty maintained that while reality does exist there is no way to get at it without human-made descriptions of reality. Our descriptions of reality thereby become our reality because there is no other way to access the reality that exists independently of us. Rival descriptions sort people into various worldview camps: atheist, theist; Muslim, Christian; and of course, conservative and progressive. Rorty furthermore maintained that gestalt-level changes of mind—changes that transform a society—occur through re-description. Re-description happens through the use of a new vocabulary: using words in new and different ways to get people to see a new and different reality.
Enter Trump, who has transformed the political landscape by re-describing it. Accusations of lying and deception fall flat because, within Trump’s vocabulary, within his re-description, what constitutes truth and even fact has been detached from Enlightenment standards of verification. The status of logic and science has been demoted in Trump’s new vocabulary. Power, virulent nationalism, and ratings driven by social media now modulate truth claims. Within Trump’s vocabulary, a claim moves closest to truth status when it affirms his stature as leader, exerts American strength (reflected in Trump’s own power), and generates followers, likes, views, and large crowds. Dissenting arguments hit the proverbial wall because they are all couched within the older political vocabulary, one that privileged logic and decorum. Counselor to the President, Kellyanne Conway, once referred to some of Trump’s claims as “alternative facts.” Deploying a successful new vocabulary means that alternative facts eventually catch on and become just plain facts…until a new vocabulary comes along.
The epistemology that Trump has modeled is textbook postmodernism, a philosophical orientation hatched in the dens of liberal thought: the university. Intellectual elites around the world employed postmodernism as an analytical lens as they interrogated Western power structures and deconstructed gender, sexuality, and race norms, which in turn gave rise to identity politics. Twenty years ago, the warnings and jeremiads against postmodernism flowed from the pens of conservative writers, especially conservative evangelical writers. They saw in postmodernism a toxic relativism that would undermine the Bible’s status as the foundation for absolute truth.
In 2016, roughly 80% of evangelicals—presumably many of these same evangelicals—cast their vote for Trump.
Twenty years ago, conservatives believed that liberalism would spawn the postmodern anti-Christ, a shifty anti-hero who, by yanking from truth the very pillars upon which it stood, would destroy society by reconfiguring right and wrong. The irony is that, little did they know, that menacing figure crouched in their very midst and would later become their political leader.
Conservatives and Authority
Political arguments are obviously grounded in more than just reason and logic. They also appeal to authority, to beliefs and people who might be deemed trustworthy and reliable. The Christian scholar Phyllis Tickle wrote, “The question of ‘Where now is our authority?’ is the fundamental or foundational question of all human existence and/or endeavor, be it individual or that of a larger social unit.” For conservatives, the appeal to authority is especially important, as its name denotes. Conservatism wants to conserve beliefs and policies from the past, a past that safeguards authority. And according to conservatism, if change is enacted, it should come gradually. The eighteenth-century political thinker Edmund Burke, a patron saint of classic conservativism, wrote glowingly of his own country’s resistance to change: “Four hundred years have gone over us [the English]; but I believe we are not materially changed since that period. Thanks to our sullen resistance to innovation, thanks to the cold sluggishness of our national character, we still bear the stamp of our forefathers.”
The irony is that Trump has both purposefully and unwittingly unmoored his political program from traditional conservative authorities. Moreover, he has done so with destructive haste, flying in the face of Burke’s hallowed conservative principles, running roughshod over tried and true conservative sources of authority. Instead of carving out change with a conservative scalpel, he wildly flails a machete with tantrum-like petulance. Some of this has to do with the anti-establishment element in the Trump camp. Much of it has to do with Trump’s own ignorance: he unwittingly cuts himself off from classic conservative forms of authority that he either does not understand or does not even know exist.
Consider two traditional forms of conservative authority, both of which have been pummeled to the ground inside of Trump’s political mosh pit.
1. High Tradition
By high tradition I mean the collective wisdom of Western Civilization, formulated into tried and true principles that have stood the test of time. We might call this wisdom and these principles the intellectual heritage of classical conservativism. C.S. Lewis, an intellectual conservative par excellence, gives voice to high tradition when he explains why, like most conservatives, he is not a pacifist: “To be a Pacifist, I must part company with Homer and Virgil, with Plato and Aristotle, with Zarathustra and the Bhagavad-Gita, with Cicero and Montaigne, with Iceland and with Egypt.” Classic conservativism builds upon a foundation forged by centuries of history.
Trump does not reject this foundation; rather, he seems to have no inkling that it exists. His ignorance of history was embarrassingly revealed when it became clear that he did not know who Frederick Douglass was. During a conversation with African American leaders in February 2017 to mark the beginning of African History Month, Trump said that Douglass is “an example of somebody who’s done an amazing job and is being recognized more and more.”
Moreover, the populist base that more or less put Trump in office does not exactly resonate with the big ideas that have historically given conservatism its intellectual legs. Big ideas are associated with intellectuals; intellectuals are elitists; and elitists are evil.
Trump’s Twitter communiques exemplify anti-intellectualism, with their sloppy generalizations, whopping non sequiturs, and grammatical and syntactical disasters.
2. The Judeo-Christian Tradition
American conservatives have built the Republican Party upon the Judeo-Christian tradition. For American evangelicals in particular, the Judeo-Christian tradition serves as the anchor for all political programs and policies, the rock-bottom foundation for their political worldview. Weighty decisions are steered by litmus-test questions: What would Jesus do? What does the Bible say?
In 1999 during the Republican Presidential Debate, when George W. Bush identified “Christ” as his “favorite political philosopher,” cynics had their doubts. But given Bush’s archetypal repentance story involving alcohol and a subsequent decision to turn his life around, conservatives could at least defend Bush’s answer with due credibility.
Trump’s credibility as a politician building his guiding principles upon the foundation of the Judeo-Christian tradition recedes with each self-aggrandizing Tweet and reckless threat, with each sexist or racist off-the-cuff remark, and with each policy decision to turn the country’s back on what Jesus called “the least of these.” The continued evangelical support of Trump exposes the dark underbelly of that movement to confirm what many critics have long suspected: some evangelicals will stop at nothing to win the culture war, even if that means compromising the Christian values that they supposedly champion.
In short, the Judeo-Christian tradition is not an authority to which the Trump administration can credibly appeal, as evidenced in these four jaw-dropping moments:
● The Access Hollywood tapes. Trump: “I did try and fuck her. She was married… I moved on her like a bitch… You know, I’m automatically attracted to beautiful — I just start kissing them. It’s like a magnet. Just kiss. I don’t even wait. And when you’re a star, they let you do it. You can do anything… Grab ’em by the pussy. You can do anything.”
● A 2015 interview during which Trump said he does not ask God for forgiveness: “I am not sure I have. I just go on and try to do a better job from there. I don’t think so… I think if I do something wrong, I think, I just try and make it right. I don’t bring God into that picture. I don’t.”
● Trump’s mockery of a disabled reporter in late 2015.
● Trump’s assertion that there were some “very fine people” among the white-nationalist protestors in Charlottesville.
These outrageous remarks and unrepentant actions—combined with Trump’s biblical illiteracy (he once called 1 Corinthians “one Corinthians”)—severs Trump from the foundation that has served conservatives in this country for decades. And yet Trump has become the leader of the conservative movement despite ripping apart these conservative foundations.
Conservatives once lambasted Bill Clinton for tearing apart the moral fabric of the country; his blatant immorality was a threat to the Judeo-Christian values upon which the country was built. Twenty-five years later, conservatives—presumably some of these same conservatives—elected and continue to support a man who has desensitized a country with an unmitigated flurry of moral outrages.
Conservatives and Nietzsche
Trump’s deployment of a new postmodern vocabulary, along with his disregard for traditional forms of conservative authority, culminates in another irony: his unlikely connection to Nietzsche. For both Nietzsche and Trump, the destruction of traditional forms of authority creates a distinctly new moral vocabulary.
To oversimplify, Nietzsche distinguishes between “master morality” and “herd morality.” According to Nietzsche, master morality came first. It was created by the strongest and bravest, those who refused to repress their instinct to hunt, fight, conquer, and rule. They exhibited a will to power. The strongest, the most vigorous, the most aggressive rise to the top and dominate the others. But eventually, the herd morality overcame the master morality. The weak, in a sense, defeated the strong. How did this happen?
Because the weak subverted the values of the strong. They transformed the will to power into a vice. Since they knew they would always be weaker than the strong, they transformed their weakness into a virtue. But instead of using the word weakness, they employed words like “pity,” “sympathy,” and “mercy”: words that, to the strong, were synonymous with weakness. For Nietzsche, the herd morality—as its name implies—instituted conformity and mediocrity. And it should be clear by now that Nietzsche linked the herd morality to the Judeo-Christian tradition. For Nietzsche, Jews and Christians are the losers in life; they have managed to convince most people that losing is actually winning—that being humble and meek, avoiding sin, and treating others as you would want to be treated are signs of a noble character.
Trump is admittedly a crude model of Nietzsche’s Superman. He shares the Superman’s will to power, refusing to back down to any other world leader, replacing diplomacy with confrontation, often in the form of an inflammatory, puerile Tweet. He brags about the size of his “nuclear button.” Traditional heroes, like John McCain, are to Trump losers. As Trump explained, “[McCain is] not a war hero. He’s a war hero because he was captured. I like people that weren’t captured.”
Of course, Trump himself never fought in a war and in fact received five draft deferments, four for college and one for bad feet. This is why, as stated earlier, Trump is a crude model of Nietzsche’s Superman, a sort of anti-Superman, picaresque Superman, or just plain comic Superman.
On the other hand, the twenty-first century Superman is not measured by military might or traditional standards of strength; he is measured by news coverage and social-media presence. His aggression is directed toward drawing attention, creating a scandal, inflaming passions, and manipulating opinion by stoking fear and anger. The might of the twenty-first century Superman is symbolized not by an iron fist but by a mobile phone, from which Trump shocks the world, keeping it off-balance, all the while drawing more likes, emoji responses, followers, and views. And he gets away with it. That is the measure of strength for Trump’s version of the Nietzschean Superman. As Trump declared in 2016 during the presidential campaign, “I could stand in the middle of 5th Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose voters.” Trump has forged a Superman identity within the confines of democracy, in which the line separating public support from entertainment and spectacle has become blurred.
The subversion of morality marks Trump’s closest kinship to Nietzsche. What is called “political correctness” is, among other things, sensitivity and politeness to those who have been historically oppressed: women, minorities, and the LGBT community. For Trump, sensitivity and politeness are weak. His war on political correctness is thus Nietzsche’s version of overthrowing traditional morality. Trump recasts common decency as pussyfooting around hypersensitive wimps. His supporters respect his crude ad–hominemattacks, reconfiguring them as refreshing honesty for an America that desperately needs to grow a pair.
So, for instance, when Trump announces that a judge cannot be impartial because of his Hispanic heritage, Trump is not being racist; he is simply avoiding political correctness, drawing the admiration of his supporters for having the balls to say what they were all thinking anyway. His war on political correctness stretches into all underrepresented demographics, especially women. The “again” of Trump’s campaign slogan is a wistful nod to a mythical great America in which men were men and knew that women should be ignored when they were “bleeding from their wherever.”
Deploying this new political vocabulary, Trump has ushered in a new form of conservatism: punk conservativism. Juvenile, angry, and unsophisticated, punk conservativism—like the punk movement of the late 1970s—lashes out at authority, reveling in the way it pisses people off. Like its musical counterpart, it offers something that people have never heard before. Despite its transparent simplicity and grating sounds—indeed, precisely because ofthose rough edges—it has drawn a surprisingly large crowd.
Something Trump conservatism has in common with Establishment conservatism is the goal of a smaller government. Trump’s pursuit of this goal, however, is pure punk because it has no larger ethos to surround it, no internally consistent political framework to contextualize it and give it purchase. The result is a haphazard and chaotic governmental self-destruction, analogous to the spectacle of punk self-flagellation on stage. Consider how Trump has appointed as head of the EPA a man who wants to destroy the EPA as it has existed for decades, a man who had thirteen times previously sued the agency he now leads and has no credentials in science, let alone in environmental science. Or consider Trump’s Department of Education appointment, a woman who seeks to upend national education policy despite no formal experience in teaching or educational administration.
These are Trump’s metaphorical bandmates who, like the punks of the late 1970s, can barely play their instruments. Nevertheless they get away with it. They channel the rudimentary, primal impulses of their audience. And we are mesmerized by the self-destructiveness of these sorts of performances: governmental leaders who want to destroy government on the one hand, rock musicians who want to destroy rock on the other. They are calculated to come across as one of us, people of the people, no career politicians or agented rock stars—just passionate performers who believe that politics and music need a swift kick in the ass.
Before their time, they would have been booed off of their respective stages, dismissed as novices, buffoons, and purveyors of gratuitous dark spectacle. Their emergence coincided with a profound dissatisfaction with the status quo, when people were hungry for something raw and real. Punk is, above all, a populist movement.
Of course, people tired of punk; there’s only so much you can do with a simplistic two-chord progression and unbottled rage. Trump’s punk conservativism will likely meet the same fate. Like rock and roll, politics will re-stabilize itself after the punk disruption. Then again, in the case of music, the stabilization occurred only after punk had destroyed pretty much everything in its path.
Samuel Joeckel, Professor of English at Palm Beach Atlantic University, is the author of Golden Notes (a novel) and The C.S. Lewis Phenomenon: Christianity and the Public Sphere.